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The power of process

May 28, 2020

By Martha Sullivan, CPA, CVA/ABV, CM&AA, CEPA
Partner, Succession Planning Practice Leader

Martha leads HK’s succession and exit planning services division and is a regular contributor to Wisconsin’s InBusiness digital magazine.

Of all the lessons of recent months, one of the more surprising ones was how little most of us knew about the proper way to do simplest thing. We’ve been doing it since the days we first could reach a faucet — wash our hands.

Like me, you’ve probably been told to “wash your hands” more times, by more people, in the last four months than during your entire lifetime. I know it should take 20 seconds. I know the songs I can sing as I do it — and fortunately for you, with my inside voice. I know the water should be hot and soap should be used. I know. I know. I KNOW!

Yet, I’m calling “baloney” on myself after stumbling upon a post with a video on the topic. I was schooled. One hundred percent schooled. I didn’t know up from down and all these years had been doing it “wrong.” I just didn’t know it. After watching the video, you may be in the same place.

The same is true in our businesses. We have many different processes we use and rely upon every day. Processes that we “know how to do.” But do we? Is the process as effective as we think it is? Are we all doing it the same way so that the results are of a consistent, high quality?

It’s easy to let stylistic differences slide. Sticking with the hand-washing example. Perhaps you use an antibacterial type of soap and someone else uses a soap that isn’t antibacterial. Maybe you make sure your hands are fully soaped, such as in the video, but employ a shorter rinse time and another person has less soap coverage but hangs out rinsing longer. Are the results the same? Probably not.

The strength of our processes has been tested this year as we have had to adjust to working from home (WFH), limiting or scaling our production and services offerings up or down, and handling a myriad of new dynamic employment and HR issues. The most successful businesses were able to adjust because they have:

  • Organized and streamlined processes;
  • Documentation to communicate process purpose, procedures, and quality and output standards;
  • Supporting training, retraining, and materials to instruct individuals on the process;
  • Cross-training and cross-utilization practices in place;
  • Data-driven systems to capture the results of the process, including output volumes, quality, costs, and other factors; and
  • An open mind to process innovation and an agile approach to adaptation.

These companies are the ones we’re seeing move into new product lines to meet demand for personal protective equipment (PPE). Other companies have moved to WFH and because their processes were structured, systematic, and documented, and they easily maintained their operations without a hitch. In doing so, many have set the stage to become a forever-virtual WFH organization, such as Twitter recently announced.

The more rigorous a company’s approach to its systems, the stronger the company is overall and the more prepared it is to adapt to evolving circumstances. Strong, documented, and flexible systems are a key driver in assessing a company’s value. Systems determine the transferability of knowledge, capability, and value from the seller to a new owner. They also support the transferability of operations from dine-in to carry-out, retail to online, in-office to WFH, and so on.

Unfortunately, this is an area of business management and leadership that is routinely pushed to the backburner. It’s easy to blow off systems work when faced with the urgent matters of the day. We all fall victim to it. When given the choice of documenting procedures so someone else can pick up where I left off versus doing something more fun, like writing a blog post, well, you can see what the choice is. Yet, those very procedures are ones that are helping my colleagues replicate our processes so we can deliver a consistent experience to our clients as well as our teammates. Whether it’s a library of IT processes that help co-workers figure out how to scan and securely save files remotely or production protocols to be used in a new plant floor layout reconfigured for safe employee distancing, it’s times like now that underscore the importance of your systems.

It’s also times like now that test our assumptions about our systems and procedures. Change is here in 2020 whether we like it or not. Tried and true processes — like washing hands — have been disrupted in monumental ways. What worked 90 days ago may not work now. What’s working today may not work 90 days from now.

To say that this is unnerving is an understatement. Yet, there’s a silver lining. You and your company are being handed a golden opportunity. Seize the chance to improve your processes and your outcomes. Rather than dwelling on the negative and problems, see what you can do to make it better, use a process differently, or abandon it and chart a new course. Question your systems and approaches and create better solutions. Then document, train, cross train, and retrain on it, all the while keeping an eye and ear open for continuing opportunities to adapt and improve.

Learn how to wash your hands all over again.

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